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2006-12, 352, Autobiography, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, English historical

Book Review- The Autobiography of Sir Thomas Bodley.

The Autobiography of Sir Thomas Bodley.

With an introduction and notes by William Clennell.

(Oxford. Bodleian Library. 2006) 70pp. £4.99ISBN 1-85124-340-2

The Bodleian Library in Oxford has released a well priced small format reprint of the 1647 publication The Life of Sir Thomas Bodley. The text is admirably supplemented by a substantial introduction by William Clennell, a former member of the Bodleian. Bodley’s original manuscript from December 1609 seems not to have survived but the text is preserved in a copy made about 1615.

While the life of Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613) is primarily of interest as the autobiography of the benefactor of the library of the University of Oxford, it has also been termed “the first English autobiography in which the subject’s life is so narrated, within a rhetorical framework, as to constitute an apologia”. Clennell succinctly outlines Bodley’s career including his time as a diplomat, such as serving as Elizabeth I’s ambassador to the Netherlands. Clennell also places into context key issues which Bodley omits from the autobiography, notably his early life and his marriage in 1586.

Ian Philip, in The Bodleian Library in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1983), outlined the background to the re-foundation in the late1590s by Sir Thomas Bodley of the University Library at Oxford. It is interesting to reflect in the present era of many universities discarding library volumes, Philip’s comment that part of the reason for the Library’s original dispersal by the mid-1550s was that the collection was “largely irrelevant to the teaching needs of its members”!

Bodley’s famous words “to set up my Staffe at the Library doore in Oxford” was an objective he pursued vigorously. Bodley paid for the refitting of the library, through, in Bodley’s words,” carpenters, ioiners, carvers, glasiers, and all that idle rabble”. A somewhat ironic statement given that most of these trades now earn more than academics and librarians.

Bodley felt that the ingredients for success were “leisure, learning, money and friends” and his career allowed him access to many important contacts. The Bodleian needed all of these four elements, especially money. While it has been rumoured in the past that Bodley’s fortune was “founded on pilchards”, ascribed to his marrying the wealthy widow of a fish merchant, Clennell shows that Bodley also benefited financially after his father’s death in 1591 and that he was a shrewd estates manager.

The Autobiography of Sir Thomas Bodley, at the cost of less than a paperback, is a splendid keepsake for bibliophiles everywhere.

Colin Steele



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